Exclusive-France’s Orange withdraws from process to buy stake in Ethio Telecom

By Aaron Ross

NAIROBI (Reuters) – French telecoms firm Orange told Reuters on Monday that it had decided to withdraw from the process to purchase an up to 45% stake in Ethiopian operator Ethio Telecom.

Orange submitted an expression of interest in 2021 to participate in the partial privatisation of Ethio Telecom, a former monopoly with more than 70 million subscribers, Ethiopia’s ambassador to Paris said at the time.

“Orange confirms that it has decided to withdraw from the ongoing process regarding the sale of 45% of Ethio Telecom,” the company said in a statement to Reuters.

“After analysis, the Group believes that the conditions do not allow for the rapid deployment of our strategy and the completion of a project that would create value for the company.”

Ethio Telecom and Ethiopia’s finance ministry, which is overseeing the bidding process, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The telecommunications sector in Ethiopia, Africa’s second most populous country with around 120 million people, was seen as the big prize of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s drive to liberalise the economy after coming to power in 2018.

In May 2021, a consortium led by Kenya’s top operator, Safaricom, won the first private licence to compete with Ethio Telecom.

Further liberalisation of the sector has been slowed by several factors, including a two-year civil war in the northern Tigray region that ended in November 2022 and difficult macroeconomic conditions.

Earlier this month, the government said it had cancelled a process to award a second private telecoms licence because of insufficient market interest.

Ethiopia first launched a tendering process for a 40% stake in Ethio Telecom in June 2021 before announcing in March 2022 that it was postponing the sale because of economic conditions. It then revived the process in November 2022 and increased the stake on offer in February.

(Reporting by Aaron Ross; additional reporting by Dawit Endeshaw in Addis Ababa; editing by David Evans)